Category Archives: Songs

Party Time

Last week was full of more social gatherings for us than we have had in more than a year. At an outdoor ceremony at a city park, Husband and other officers for the local food pantry accepted a cheque from the city for a new security system. Husband got to rub elbows with city officials, Rotarians, former university presidents, and other local worthies. He then did some church visiting to a shut-in couple we haven’t seen for months. It culminated in a wonderful party on Saturday night in Mandan at a city park about 10 miles outside of town at a man-made reservoir.

Dear friends of ours, the ones who gave us the Arikara bean seeds, celebrated their 27th wedding anniversary. They are a couple older than we are, in their early 70’s. He is Native American. She is white. They are both addiction counselors. They renewed their wedding vows with the help of family, friends, former colleagues, and an Indian Elvis Impersonator from Oklahoma. The party was held in a large, open air picnic shelter.

There was plenty of food provided by the couple and kept hot in huge electric roasters. Guests brought food, too. It was a real pot luck feast. There were about 50 people in attendance. The trick was keeping one’s self hydrated and the perishables cool, since the temperature, at 5:00 PM, was 103. I feared for Elvis in his white jump suit. He sang and danced and gyrated despite the heat.

Elvis was fascinating. He is a member of the Choctaw nation and also is an actor and traditional dancer. Our friend found him by searching YouTube videos under the name NDN Elvis. He sang to a prerecorded accompaniment so he didn’t need a live back up band. He also conducted the renewal ceremony. A former tribal councilman read selections from the Bible. There were flower bouquets, sage bundles, and sweet grass braids. Family had made a photo display of the couple’s years together.

The only thing that didn’t work out was the Indian flute player, Keith Bear. He is a rather well known Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara Nation musician. You can find him on You Tube, too. He had to travel unexpectedly to the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota to help with the passing of a notable spiritual leader who was present at Wounded Knee. There always seems to be at least one thing that doesn’t go as planned at a big party.

Tell some wedding or anniversary party stories. What worked? What didn’t? What would you want an Elvis Impersonator to sing at your party?

Intro to the Classics

We had a lovely time last weekend with our son and his family. We were busy with cooking and eating and visiting and all the things you do when there is a three year old in the house. Grandson loves to dance and has a pretty good sense of melody and pitch, so I thought it would be fun to introduce him to some classical music.

We have a CD of Peter and the Wolf and The Carnival of the Animals performed by the Vienna Philharmonic and duo pianists Alfons and Aloys Kontarsky, with Karl Bohm conducting. Both are narrated by Hermione Gingold. I love her voice and expressiveness. She sounds so plummy, except when she drops into Cockney when she gets to the part where the wolf eats the duck “And he swallowed her rye tup!” The Carnival text was some cheesy poems by Oden Nash, but even that was ok with her narrating.

Grandson loved the stories. We acted out the motions of the animals with the music. He thought being the wolf was the best, even better than being Peter. It is so much fun to howl and roar, you see, even when you are being taken to the zoo. He especially liked marching to the lion’s music and roaring, jumping like the kangaroos, and waltzing like the elephants. I told him to imagine that the finale of Carnival was music for the monkeys in the zoo.

As we were saying our goodbyes on Monday, Grandson rather spontaneously called out from his car seat “Thank you for the lions and the wolfs, and the elephants, Oma”. I was pretty touched, and thought we had a pretty good intro to some good music.

What was your first introduction to classical music? What are your favorite classical compositions? How would you introduce them to a three year old?

Songs to plant beans by

If any Baboons chance to drive past my house today, they might see a strange sight. They might see me and hear me singing in the garden.

Last winter we got some Arikara bean seeds from a friend of ours from the Reservation. They are a bush bean that produces brown shellout beans. Our friend got them from a tribal elder some time ago. He is a pretty marginal gardener and he gave us the beans to grow in our garden. He is very excited for us to grow them, but he said there were a few things I had to do in order to plant them successfully.

First, I have to wear an apron and a scarf while I plant them. He told me his grandmother wore that when she planted and she was a good gardener. Second, I have to sing to the beans when I plant them. He wasn’t sure of the tune, since his grandmother whistled a barely discernible tune through her teeth while she planted. Oh, and I should make up some words to go with the song. He said not to worry if our Hidatsa pole beans felt jealous. They would be just fine.

My friend’s bean planting instructions are just like the directions he gives to find places on the Reservation-without GPS or a map you would never find your way.

I asked another Native friend what she would sing to the beans, and she said it was important that I compliment them. She is from the Cheyenne River Reservation and is Lakota. (In the same conversation I asked her the address of her new house. She said she wasn’t sure, but I could find it if I went down that one alley, the one with the 15 cats, and then turned left.) I mentioned her lyric suggestion to my bean bestowing friend, and he totally disagreed (Arikara and Lakota rarely agree), saying I had to plead with the beans when I planted them, telling them how much our survival depends on them.

I chose the tune to the Glow-Worm song, and came up with these lyrics:

Grow pretty beans, please heed us, heed us.

We need you so to feed us, feed us.

You’ll make us strong, please don’t take long, so grow pretty  beans, please grow

Part of me thinks that my Native friends are pulling my leg, but hey, if it helps the garden, why not?

Make up some bean growing lyrics. Choose whatever tune you wish. How are you at giving directions?

RIP Johnny Crawford

Johnny Crawford was one of my idols when I was a kid.  Although he is best known for his role as Mark McCain on The Rifleman, he was a very busy young man, appearing in not just Mickey Mouse Clubhouse but a myriad of other movies and tv shows.

He also had a musical career with several of his songs making it to the top ten on the charts.  His most famous was Cindy’s Birthday.

He appeared on the rodeo circuit for a time; apparently he was a master at rope tricks, which he had learned during his years on western/cowboy pictures.  He served in the armed forces for a few years as well, but kept returning to acting.  His last picture was a piece with Chuck Conners in which the roles from The Rifleman were reprised.  Apparently Johnny and Chuck had remained close in all the years since their television show.

Crawford’s career was cut off when he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 2019.  Sadly he passed away from complications of Covid last week.  He was apparently a really nice person and had a beautiful smile right up until the end.

Who did you have a crush on when you were younger?  (Or now for that matter!)

Organizing a Salon

I read an interesting review the other day a of new Classical CD, “Music in Proust’s Salons”, in which Steven Isserlis, the cellist, recorded pieces written by contemporaries of Marcel Proust. Proust loved organizing small concerts following fancy meals at elegant Paris restaurants. Pieces by Faure, Franck, Hahn, and Chabrier figure prominently in Proust’s selections for his guests. I thought what fun that must have been for all concerned, and I began imagining what sort of salon I would organize. We have many musical friends, so I would invite them to perform. Some are more classically trained, some are Native friends who play a variety of instruments. The guests would be a hodge-podge of coworkers, church friends, and professional friends. We could have dessert and coffee, finger foods, and snacks. Our living room is pretty small, so we would have to find a community room somewhere so we could have enough space as well as a kitchen. I think it would be lovely.

If money wasn’t a problem, who would you invite to play at a salon you organized?  What would you want them to play? what food would you serve?  Have you read much by Proust?

The Soundtrack of our Lives

Today’s post comes from Steve Grooms.

I’m passionate about music and life, so it is not surprising that the two often meld for me. Certain moments become inextricably associated with the music I was listening to at that time. The most familiar example of this is how couples can have a song or performance that becomes “our” song. But that sort of things happens over and over for people like me. We end up associating music with certain times places we have known. I keep hearing the phrase: “the soundtrack for my life.” And that, for many people, colors how they think of moments from their past.

The worst place I ever lived was a shabby little house on the West Bank near Seven Corners, but that place is also associated with the moment I discovered the music of Leo Kottke at the nearby Scholar Coffeehouse. As awful as that house was, Leo’s music was one of the happiest discoveries of my life. Some of the associations we make are complicated.

Sometimes the soundtrack we can’t help associating with something is wildly inappropriate to anyone else. I discovered the Lord of the Rings trilogy early in grad school. At the same time, I was listening to a lot of Ravi Shankar sitar music. Clearly, the epic trilogy is as thoroughly European and Nordic as Shankar’s music is Indian, but when I read Tolkien I keep hearing sitar music. It is, after all, exotic, and I found the novels exotic.

I think of these matters a lot now because I keep encountering two types of music that are linked in my mind to the pandemic. I discovered the music of the traditional jazz band Tuba Skinny just as the virus reached the US and changed our lives. When I listen to YouTube videos of the band, as I do for maybe an hour each day, I keep reading comments from others who say they could not bear the pandemic without the uplift of Tuba Skinny music.

Similarly, early in the virus shutdown period, Mary Chapin Carpenter began recording Songs from Home. She films herself with her animals (White Kitty and Angus, the golden retriever) at her farm home in Virginia. She delivers her performances (filmed on her phone, I think) with a breathy intimacy that is incredibly calming. Unless you somehow hate her music, I urge you to sample some Songs From Home to read the comments of all the people who say their sole salvation in this difficult time is the music she makes for them.

What about you? What music do you associate with particular moments from your past? Do you have “our song” with anyone?

New Operas

I am not typically a big fan of opera music, but I love the stories they tell. The other day I heard a selection from Nixon in China  by John Adams on MPR. I think it was The Chairman Dances.   I remember seeing a televised performance that opera, and I found the costuming, with all those drab Mao jackets very amusing.

Operas do a good job of immortalizing important moments in history,  and I suppose that Nixon’s breakthrough with China was monumental.  I wonder what the opera repertoire  will be like fifty years from now?

What recent events would you like to see made into operas?  What is your favorite opera?

Problematic Hymns

Our church choir, usually at about eighteen voices, is now down to five, (two altos, one mezzo soprano, and two tenor/baritones). The director is an operatic type of soprano who can sing and direct at the same time, and the accompanist is a very fine bass/baritone who can’t sing and play at the same time.  He just accompanies, and does it very well.  We sing masked and socially distanced, which is interesting in terms of listening to one another and blending.  We sing once a month.

I love to sing in the church  choir.  I have mixed feelings about sitting in the congregation and singing hymns.  I grew up in a Norwegian Lutheran congregation in South West Minnesota, and we had to sing every blessed verse in every hymn on Sunday.  To this day I just cringe when I have have to sing  four or more verses in the hymns.  I like the sentiment in the early verses, but I am more drawn to the melody and harmonies.

The folks we sing with in choir are an opinionated bunch when it comes to hymns. The accompanist, a retired high school choir director,  blanches when Amazing Grace is in the bulletin.  He can’t stand it for some reason.  The mezzo soprano, an elementary music teacher, refuses to sing Blessed Assurance  because she finds it so smarmy, and my fellow alto, a college librarian, cringes at Holy, Holy, Holy  because she had to sing it so often as a child.  I am drawn to mournful Scandinavian, German, and English tunes, but please don’t make me sing more than two verses of anything.

When I attended Concordia College in the 1970’s, the Concert Choir sang what I thought was a very odd song written by Paul J. Christiansen,  the choir director at the time,  based on Carl Sandburg’s  Prayers of Steel:

Lay me on an anvil; O God.
Beat me and hammer me into a crowbar.
Let me pry loose old walls.
Let me lift and loosen old foundations.
Lay me on an anvil, God.

Beat me and hammer me into a steel spike.
Drive me into the girders that hold a
skyscraper together.
Take red-hot rivets and fasten me into the
central girders.
Let me be the great nail holding a skyscraper
through blue nights
into white stars.

I don’t know If I would have chosen this as the text for a sacred song, but hey, it only has two verses.

What are your favorite songs?  What songs can’t you stand?  What do you like to sing?

A Winner

It was on this day in 1934 that Ella Fitzgerald headed to the Apollo Theatre in New York for Amateur Night.  It was a weekly event that had only been started earlier that year and to get onto stage, your name had to be drawn from a hat.  Ella was just 15 and had gone on a bet with two friends.  She had intended to dance, but the act preceding her was a dance duo; she didn’t think her dancing would measure up, so on the spot she decided to sing instead.  She sang “The Object of My Affection” and brought the house down. 

Within a year she joined Chick Webb’s band with whom she scored her first big hit “A Tisket A Tasket”.  The rest is jazz history.      

Have you ever won a drawing?

Putting On A Show

I was the assisting minister in church yesterday. That required me to sit up front with the pastors and read aloud a selection from the Old Testament, read the Psalm responsively with the congregation,  and then read a selection from the New Testament.  This week I read from Jeremiah and Romans. I really love reading the lessons, and I try my best to convey the meanings in them to the congregation.

Last year we hired a new Worship and Music director.  It is a lay position.  She has done a nice job revitalizing our worship services. I must confess, however, that I find her presentation more than a little disconcerting .  She really, really, loves the Lord, and during services she beams with this beatific glow from her head to her toes.  The problem is that she expects those of us assisting in the worship services as well as musicians to exude the same joy she does. I was raised in a more somber tradition, in which you don’t show much emotion in church, and public displays of religious fervor are highly suspect.  This passage from Matthew sums up what was deeply ingrained in me growing up:

And when you pray, be not like the hypocrites.  For they love to stand in the synagogue and on the street corners to be seen by men. . . But when you pray, go into your inner room, shut your door, and pray to your Father, who is unseen.

Our services are now in person (we are all masked), as well as broadcast over a live Facebook feed and over the local radio. The other Sunday after Husband was the assisting minister, our Worship and Music Director emailed him to  chide him for looking too serious and glum during the service. Husband always looks glum. Moreover,  it is hard to exude joy in a mask, or when you are reading something gloomy from the Old Testament.  We just ignored her email.

Yesterday as I sat in front and read the assigned verses, I couldn’t help but smile surreptitiously behind my mask as I thought about this number from The Producers.

I imagine the Worship and Music Director wouldn’t think it was very funny, but it really sums up her idea of putting on a church service.  Her tenure is limited, as she and her family have moved to another state. She brought us some good ideas to enliven worship, but I am relieved I won’t be chided for not putting a sappy look on my face as I assist or provide music.

When have you had to put on  a show?